Unknown Antecessor Site.
Ubik squatted down next to Nifell and lifted his head by the top of his helmet which had a convenient hook to hold onto. Handy for hanging in a locker, not so great if you didn’t want to get grabbed and thrown to the ground.
He looked deep into Nifell’s entirely black and lifeless eyes, humming as he waited for a full and complete history of the Antecessors, as promised. He didn’t really expect to get what had been advertised — when did you ever? — but he thought it was worth a try. You never knew when an alien race might defy convention and follow through on a commitment they never had any intention of fulfilling. What could be more alien than that?
“What are you waiting for?” said PT.
“Please, a little patience,” said Ubik. “This is a very sensitive moment. First contact with an alien species has to be handled very delicately.”
“And you think you’re the best person to handle this delicate situation?” asked PT.
Ubik slowly turned around. He was still squatting, so he had to waddle around in a semi-circle on his haunches. He looked up at PT whose facial expression matched the doubting tone of his voice.
“I am the perfect person to handle this sort of situation. We have here the first living example of alien life in the galaxy. Can you imagine the knowledge this thing possesses? Obviously, it will be reluctant to divulge any of that knowledge, so we have to very carefully rip the information from its tight clutches.”
“I see,” said PT. “And the nanodrones in its body, they’re going to delicately torture it until it does what you want?”
Ubik frowned and waddled back around to face Nifell, sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out in front of him, his torso slumped forward. He blew gently into the helmet.
“I don’t think it’s going to be very cooperative,” said Fig, kneeling down on the other side of Nifell, running some kind of scan from the panel on his arm. “I’m seeing very little brain activity.”
“Nif,” said Ubik loudly into the area where Nif’s ear would be inside the helmet, “if you’re still in there, we’re going to save you. Stay strong.”
“How are you going to save him?” said PT.
“Oh, I’m not. He’s donezo. No chance, no hope, end of the line. Just trying to make him feel better. He probably can’t hear me.”
“But if he can, he just heard you say you’re abandoning him,” said PT. “You just made him feel a hundred times worse than if you’d said nothing.”
Ubik looked at Nifell’s blank face and considered what PT had said. He was right. If Nifell couldn’t hear, it made no difference. But if he could, he would be in a much worse state.
“Ah, damn it. I was trying to be nice while we waited. Sorry, Nif.”
“Trying to be nice?” said PT. “Well, I suppose it’s good to try something new. What exactly are we waiting for, Ubik?”
“The alien,” said Ubik, “it’s thinking about how to get out of there. It’ll probably try to get back into whatever vessel it was stored in before, but I don’t think it’s going to find the reverse trip as easy. The nanodrones are very good at cutting off exits.”
“How can they move around in Nifell’s head without killing him?” said PT.
“It’s what they were created to do,” said Ubik. “Like a virus, replicating and taking over cells. They can make copies of themselves to dig tunnels, but they’re actually designed to produce much smaller nanodrones that can take over human cells. It was all in the code, didn’t you read it?”
“The code that was up on the screen for five seconds?” said PT. “No, I must have skipped that part.”
“I don’t recall my father ever mentioning any of these abilities,” said Fig. “Although I can see why he might engineer them to have a double function.”
“The low gravity is still a bit of a problem,” said Ubik, “but liquid immersion helps, especially in a pressurised environment, like the eyeballs.” He peered into Nifell’s still-black eyes. “The important thing is to keep in mind that this is a vastly advanced being with an understanding of the universe far beyond anything we have. The secrets it might reveal could make anything the Antecessor ruins have given us in the last thousand years pale into insignificance. We might be in the presence of the greatest treasure mankind has ever found. We have to approach this with the appropriate level of care and consideration.” He banged the top of Nifell’s helmet repeatedly so it made a loud thunk-thunk-thunk. “Hello? Ready to talk, Big Head?”
There was still no response.
Ubik found himself being pulled away.
“I don’t think hitting it on the head and calling it names is going to help,” said PT. “Who knows how many thousands of years its been waiting here for just the right person to possess, and it ends up having to deal with you. Poor bastard.”
“You sound like you feel sorry for it,” said Ubik. “It’s thinking of ways to kill us.”
“Of course it is,” said PT. “It thinks all humans are like you. If you were my first contact experience with humanity, I’d want to wipe us out, too.”
“I wonder who they were,” said Fig.
“You don’t think it’s an Antecessor?” said PT.
“Definitely not,” said Fig. “The way it learned our language, that’s nothing like how the Origin attempted to communicate with me. And the way it was waiting outside this gate — I think it can’t get in without an invite.”
“And you’re the ticket?” said PT.
Fig shrugged. “If I was, it should have taken me instead of Nifell.”
“Maybe it couldn’t,” said Ubik. “Because of that.” He pointed at the bracelet on Fig’s wrist.
Fig looked down at it and winced, as though the sight of it caused him pain. “Perhaps. I’d like to be able to ask it directly. What does it think it can do from inside Nifell?”
The three of them looked at Nifell’s sorry-looking body, limp as a doll and not much of a threat.
“I think it’s sulking,” said Ubik.
“It isn’t human,” said PT. “I doubt it has human emotions.”
“Everything has emotions,” said Ubik. “Even machines. Some just hide them better than others. This guy, it was put here for a reason. A mission that would change the course of history or something, you know, epic. And its whole reason for existing ruined in a moment. Wouldn’t you feel down in the dumps if that happened to you?”
“You’re saying it’s depressed because it screwed up its life’s purpose?”
“Exactly,” said Ubik. “It isn’t easy being the last survivor of a dead civilisation, tasked with an important mission from beyond the grave, only to trip over your own feet and fall flat on your face right before the finish line.”
Nifell’s head jerked up and turned towards Ubik, the eyes still unseeing but the mouth twisted into a scowl.
“You will face the same fate as us,” said Nifell in a voice that wasn’t his own. “They will consume you as they did us.”
“Who will?” asked Fig. “The Antecessors?”
There was a pause. “Antecessors. This is what you call them?”
“What do you call them?” asked Fig.
The head jerked towards Fig’s voice. “We called them death. Destruction. Annihilation.”
“They aren’t here anymore,” said PT.
Nifell’s head moved again, stiffly but towards the sound of each speaker. “They do not die. They exist now as they always have. They will consume you. They will consume everything.”
“Yes, yes,” said Ubik. “But they don’t seem to be consuming anything at the moment. What’s your name? What should we call you?”
“My name is unimportant.”
“Okay, Big Head it is,” said Ubik. “So what are you? Some sort of enhanced recording? A memory left to operate a forgotten emitter? Download yourself into an appropriately simple consciousness and take over the body? Then what?”
“You think it’s some sort of artificial intelligence?” said Fig. “A computer program?”
“Well, it isn’t biological,” said Ubik.
“Listen, then,” said Nifell. “I will tell you the story of the ones you call Antecessors. Judge for yourself the tragic history you wish to revive.”
“Sorry, Nif,” said PT.
“Sorry for what?” said Ubik. Then he jumped out of the way to avoid PT’s foot as it shot forward and kicked Nifell in the chin.
Nifell’s head snapped back and he fell over, splayed on the ground.
“That was a bit rude,” said Ubik. “It was just about to tell a story.”
“The reason it chose Nifell,” said Fig. “The only difference was that he was full of nanodrones.”
Fig grabbed Nifell by his helmet and dragged him backwards. Nif’s legs tried to find a way to stand but Fig kept him off-balance as he headed towards the arch. As he approached it, he put one foot down hard and swivelled, sending Nifell flying through.
Steam fired from every angle, enveloping Nifell’s body. He screamed and shook as his body was caught in mid-air, floating in place as though the steam was supporting him, keeping him off the ground.
“It’s a computer program,” said PT. “It takes over simpler organisms.”
“The archway, it’s some sort of filter to keep it out,” said Fig. “It probably wanted to use the nanodrones to sneak in.”
After a few seconds, the steam dissipated and the body fell slowly to the ground and didn’t move.
“That’s great,” said Ubik. “Worked that out between you, huh? Do you two have a secret way of communicating? Some sort of group chat I’m not a member of? Not gonna lie, kind of hurts to be excluded. Also, as much as I appreciate the combined effort to stop the murderous mind-machine from another era, we’ve lost a valuable resource. The things it could have told us… the price it could have fetched on the open market...”
“It can’t tell us anything if we’re dead,” said PT. “Did it work?”
“I’m not sure,” said Fig, edging towards the body. “The only way to make—”
Nifell sat up. Concentric spirals swirled around and around in his black eyes.
“It was a nice try, guys,” said Ubik. “Stellar effort. But you weren’t quite quick enough.”
“Oh, weren’t we?” snapped PT. “This is your fault, Ubik. You gave it an army of nanodrones.”
Nifell stood up. He did it without bending his knees, which was impressive.
“Let’s not start pointing fingers,” said Ubik.
“You will obey my commands,” said Nifell, pointing fingers in an incredibly stiff manner. “We will enter the vault together. You will be the bait. You will trigger the traps. You will be my shield.”
“It’s still using Nifell’s body,” said Fig. “And it might not be used to how the parts work.”
“Right,” said PT. “I’ll go high, you go low.”
“Guys, guys,” said Ubik. “Do we really need to resort to violence?”
Nifell walked back through the archway. This time the steam had no effect other than to make the entrance a little more grand.
Fig lunged for the legs while PT leapt into the air, aiming for the throat.
Nifell didn’t move his head to look at either of them. His hand shot out in one direction while his foot moved in the other, both incredibly fast. Fig and PT were both sent flying. several metres.
“That’s not going to work,” said Ubik. “It’s Nif’s body but it’s augmented with nanodrones. You really need to pay closer attention to the schematics. Alien dude, much respect. You’ve really adapted to our technology super-fast. I for one am genuinely impressed. Big fan.”
Nifell ignored the compliments — not even a thank you! — and came striding towards Ubik.
Ubik snapped his fingers. Nifell immediately slumped to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. “But you also need to pay attention to schematics.”